What to do with the big hole in the ground in Towson? A developer says he’s ready to move ahead with the delayed $350 million Towson Row project that would go on that property. But the developer and the County Council got blowback Tuesday from people who oppose plans to use taxpayers money to help get the project off the ground.
If you’re on York Road in Towson you can’t miss it. The property is wedged between Towsontown Boulevard and Chesapeake Avenue. It is surrounded by a chain-linked fence. It's covered in weeds, rock, brick and other debris.
Justin Levy owns The Music Space on Chesapeake Avenue. It adjoins the Towson Row site which he calls a wasteland. Levy said it has turned Chesapeake into a ghost street.
“If things don’t continue to improve I might look somewhere else to have a better location,” Levy said.
The site was cleared of buildings two years ago. Then nothing much happened. Turned out, there was solid rock under the property. So plans for an underground garage went out the window and the project stalled. A new developer stepped in. Brian Gibbons, the chairman and CEO of Greenberg Gibbons, told the council Tuesday that the time is right to resurrect Towson Row.
Gibbons said, “I think this is a transformational project that is going to change the landscape of Towson that is going to give that part of Towson the heartbeat that doesn’t exist today.”
But Gibbons said they need around $43 million in public funding to get things moving. $26.5 million would come from tax credits the developer is eligible for and would get up front rather than later. The remaining $16.4 million would be a grant tied to a hotel tax the county will collect down the road. Plans for Towson Row include a hotel, as well as retail stores, offices, apartments and student housing.
Economist Anirban Basu was hired by the county to study Towson Row. Basu, who contributes The Morning Economic Report to WYPR, said the public investment isn’t that much and he adds Towson is in a battle to lure development.
“Because there is a Harbor East," Basu said. "There’s a Harbor Point. There’s a Port Covington. There’s a Locust Point. And all of these areas are competing with Towson for the most prestigious employers, the highest paying employers in the region.”
But a number of county residents made it clear they did not like the idea of tax money being used for a private development. Mark Lee said county residents are first told there is no money for things like schools and roads, then the county turns around and offers millions to developers.
“That gets everyone’s attention. Not just in Towson. But in Dundalk, Lansdowne, Dulaney Valley, Essex, Catsonville, Pikesville, and every other part of the county,” Lee said.
Lee and other speakers warned about possible payback at the ballot box next year if the council goes along with the proposal.
State Senator Jim Brochin, who represents Towson, and who also is running for County Executive, said taxpayers are being asked to cover the mistakes made by the first developer, Caves Valley Partners.
Brochin said, “They didn’t do their due diligence, and there was rock in the ground, and the big question to all seven of you is why should we have to pay for it?”
But Council Chairman Tom Quirk and others praised the new developer, saying Greenberg Gibbons has a track record of doing projects right, like Foundry Row and Hunt Valley Towne Center. Quirk said it’s a good deal for the county.
“If I’m a Towson resident, I don’t want to be sitting here three to five years from now with an empty lot,” Quirk said.
Quirk and Councilman Julian Jones said they will support the proposal. The other five Council members did not show their hands. A vote is expected Monday.